Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Imaging the Past: Cultural Memory in Dubravka Ugresic's the Museum of Unconditional Surrender

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Imaging the Past: Cultural Memory in Dubravka Ugresic's the Museum of Unconditional Surrender

Article excerpt

"You've got five minutes to take your albums and get out!" This puzzling order is given by a Serbian general shelling Sarajevo to a Bosnian friend whose house he decides to target next. The bizarre war scene is captured by Yugoslavian-born author Dubravka Ugresic in a vignette-essay titled "The Culture of Lies" and is retold by the narrator in Ugresic's acclaimed novel The Museum of Unconditional Surrender (1996; 1998 in English). "The General," Ugresic explains, "meant family photograph albums. Before destroying everything he owned, the General had 'generously' bequeathed his chosen victim life together with the right to memory, life with a few family snapshots" (70). This sense of urgency surrounding photographs might seem ill-placed at a time of war when human lives are at stake, yet Ugresic's stress on photographic memory reveals her anxiety that cultural memory and history could have been and were manipulated during the conflicts in former Yugoslavia by the different warring parties in order to obtain legitimation. Beyond its artistic merits, Ugresic's writing on photography illuminates the retrieval and construction of cultural memory in Eastern Europe in general, and in Yugoslavia in particular, after 1989.

Photographs are at the core of The Museum of Unconditional Surrender: family albums destroyed by the onset of the war in Bosnia, personal photographs that open a window onto life between the wars and the hardships of post World War II day-to-day existence, verbal snapshots clicked-off by the narrator out of the banal circumstances of her life in exile, and images in flea markets where the past is for sale. The narrator is a Croatian academic forced into exile by the war that broke out in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. (1) She lives in isolation in Berlin, where internal beacons immediately identify her countrymen; these modest encounters constitute the launching point of memories about her life in Yugoslavia. They open her up towards representations of the past and present and alert her to the recomposition of old and new narratives of belonging, borders, foreignness, and nationhood. A good part of the novel revolves around the narrator's mother; the elder woman's worries and isolation at a time of war are transcribed from her diary. A separate chapter focuses on the narrator's best friends, university professors like her, and the feasts of food and memories they used to organize in Zagreb. Thus, the novel does not follow a traditional plot. Structured according to vignettes and memory snapshots, it mixes together episodes of Berlin loneliness, touching moments about neighbors in exile, meditations on contemporary art installations, and reminiscences of Yugoslavia at different times in the narrator's life. There are bits about childhood education and the impact of the ideologically laden primer; pieces about life in a little town where the seamstress, with her powers to transform her clientele, was a much revered character; and reminiscences of lessons in ladylike behavior that bore no consequence in the terse communist world. Other stories are gathered around a common theme, like those composing the chapter "Archive: six stories with the discreet motif of a departing angel."

Ugresic refuses to give an easy coherence to the structure of her novel but announces encouragingly that "if the reader feels that there are no meaningful or firm connections between [the vingettes], let him be patient: the connections will establish themselves of their own accord" (Museum xi). These collections of ekphrastic photographs and albums rework the topoi of museum and memory preservation, maintaining vitality and the arresting message of the material. Photographs, real or verbal, act as documents that both attest to the reality they grasp and to their modifiable, subjective power of witness. Ugresic's novel is mostly about women and female memory; it combines the gentleness and melancholy of the genre with the subtlety of positioning her work within a larger debate about visual material, photography, and memory preservation. …

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